Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Neil Welch - January 24th, 2010


Presenting a set of acoustic solo saxophone improvisation

Some time ago I began working on solo saxophone material, born partly from a desire to better understand my instrument, but also in an effort to think more clearly about my own use of sonic space as an individualist.  As primarily an avant gardist in scope and style, learning to clearly and consistently control my sonic environment is a concern shared with all of us in this field of improvisation.   In listening to a monophonic instrument like the saxophone, we are immediately jolted into a sonic acceptance of a single line instrument.  Because of the traditional inability to sustain a pitch when moving from one note to another, as in a bass or piano, we are immediately confronted with the vulnerability and impermanence of sound, and are forced to live within it.  I have a deep affinity for this impermanence, that only my air may determine the life of a pitch.  Though as the following paragraphs describe, the fulcrum of this performance will be the new techniques I’m working on which alter the physical nature of playing the saxophone so as to create a sense of sustained pitch, thus giving the listener a  wide spectrum of sound.

The bulk of my practice time has been dedicated towards the cultivation of solo composition and free improvisation.  In doing this I’ve been confronted with barriers in my musicianship, including my time, harmonic sensibility, phrasing, breathing, and the pacing of an improvisation, which has naturally resulted in forcing myself to enter new fields of saxophone style.  I’ve begun learning new alternate fingering techniques, including hand positions and movement, training my hands and fingers to move at different rates of speed or different tempos altogether.   I’ve worked toward a wider spectrum of mouth position shapes, multi-phonics, circular breathing, quarter tone pitches, extreme dynamics and better controlled air flow than I’ve previously used.  In humming through my horn in specific intervals, I’ve attempted to create a sense of true harmony and polyphony on what is traditionally a monophonic instrument.  I’ve also found that while humming, singing, or screaming pitches into my instrument, different pitches in the overtone series suddenly come into the air, or in many cases even become more prominent than were originally intended to be.   Along with a careful study of the saxophone harmonic and overtone series I’ve used the these techniques to begin to develop what, for me, has begun a new style of saxophone playing. 

On a more objective level, in many of the improvisations I try to create a sense of multi-threaded melodic shapes for the listener by using passive and active listening.  This is done by playing mostly alternate fingerings at fast tempos while trying to create a sense of top, middle and bottom in the sonic field.  In doing this the listeners ear can be pulled towards high frequency dots or smears of sound, then jolted back towards the lower field by pulses and hits in the lower register.  In many improvisations and compositions by exploring my mouth position, volume and air flow, one pattern of alternate fingerings can yield different meters, pitches, melodies and deluges of sound.  I tend to use the mid section of the horn as a melodic pad for the upper and lower regions, though at times my ear is pulled throughout different parts of the horn.  In this style of playing, I’m fascinated by how much is expected of both the performer and the listener.  We must at once accept fragile, un-sustained pitches which have a relatively short life as well as be confronted by a wall of sonic activity.  I work with this space a great deal, and particularly in the faster more complicated passages the wall of sound can almost begin to transform into a kind of drone or singular mass, only to have my ear jolted into conversation by melodies that suddenly jump out on different parts of the horn.  The deeper I delve into this world, the more I realize what a crucial role gut impulse and chance play in this music.

Albums I’ve been checking out:

Evan Parker (saxophone) Time Lapse (Tzadik)

Much of this material has been inspired by the work of European saxophonist Evan Parker, whose unique improvisational technique has given me a model upon which to begin to develop my own style, while often adopting many of his own.  The bulk of his work is concerned with lengthy free improvisations in this multi-threaded melodic style, often with the use of circular breathing.  His use of embouchure shape, articulation, and phrasing can create delicate threads of interactive melodies, while simultaneously introducing high frequency buzzing in the upper register.  From both a saxophone player and listener perspective, I’m deeply inspired by his music.

Meredith Monk (voice, composer) “Northern Lights” from Facing North  (ECM)

I wish I could play the saxophone like this women can sing through her instrument.  Meredith Monk has a deep understanding of the physical human voice and uses her vocal tool to create haunting beauty, deep sorrow, cavernous phrases and cascades of undulating avant sound.  This record, Facing North along with Gotham Lullaby have been hugely influential in making me reevaluate what it means to be a creator of sound and to accept all sounds as tools for artistic magic.

John Zorn (alto saxophone)/Milford Graves (drums) “Inserted Space” from 50 squared (Tzadik)

The creator of unshakable force, saxophonist John Zorn has a performance style like no other on the saxophone, and on this record he hits hard with longtime avant garde  drummer Milford Graves.  Their use of space is so complimentary, often at times fighting with itself for new territory and greater depths, creating a dualistic charge for high ground.   John Zorn is a deep player, culling clicks, screeches, screams, and almost bowed violin sounding melodies, all woven into Graves’ driving percussive style, rooted in polyrhythmic phrasing, and grooves that don’t seem to fit into any meter yet always have a forward pushing drive.